Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | May 4, 2011
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: Carl Lund
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) has just been assigned a substitute position as an English 11A teacher and we quickly learn two things about him during his first class: Henry does not condone students talking smack about other students and nothing the students say about Henry will ding his detached demeanor. (Sticks and stones may break his bones, but words will never hurt him.) According to Henry, it is important to talk and listen to students, to treat them as equals; he listens to them like a psychiatrist, then he coolly attempts to explain his perspective on their situation. Of course, an administrative line has been drawn between students and teachers — for one, male teachers cannot have one-on-one conversations with female students behind closed doors (but it is okay for a comfortably numb Dean [James Caan] to rhetorically ask a female student [Celia Au]: “Can I see your nipples?”) — but Henry does not agree with that way of thinking. Henry also seems to be a little put off by Principal Carol Dearden’s (Marcia Gay Harden) bureaucratic proclamation that Henry “teach the curriculum” — I get the impression that Henry does not like to play by the book…unless that book is Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, which is said to reflect Henry’s state of being (as well as, quite possibly, our own reading of Detachment):
“A sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me…with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime… I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…”
Henry does not live his personal life by the book either, as he befriends a young prostitute (Sami Gayle) and argumentatively contends with the lackluster assistance at his grandfather’s (Louis Zorich) assisted living facility. You see, the sorrow and the pity is not confined to the boundaries of the high school. Henry’s personal life has a lot of skeletons, just as the other teachers are either afraid of spending time at home alone or they possess dreadfully depressing family lives; they take their work problems home, just as they bring their home problems to work. In Detachment, the teachers and school administrators are rapidly approaching their personal breaking (or boiling) points. Henry may think that his existential shield of detachment is powerful enough to protect him from the encroaching shit storm, but he might break just like the rest…
If Detachment has one purpose, it is to illustrate just how fucked up the public education system in the United States is by pointing the finger at a variety of weaknesses: curriculum-based learning — in other words, teaching the students what they need to know in order to pass whichever federally-mandated test is next on the horizon; George W. Bush’s brainchild “No Child Left Behind” and other numskull state & federal mandates; the overall bureaucracy and politics (for instance: test scores are said to be directly correlated to real estate values); parents no longer care about their children’s education; teachers are not qualified to deal with half the shit they need to deal with on a daily basis; marketing is dumbing us down by way of ubiquitous assimilation; the students have no desire, no fire, no mind to feed. The list goes on…and on…and on… The prevailing message is: The current system is failing. Drastic changes need to be made. (Dear Republicans: This does not mean cutting education budgets, laying off teachers or closing schools.)
An empty parent teacher night really drives home the point that the parents are at least partially to blame for the sorry state of the public education system. At one point, Henry states that there should be prerequisites for becoming a parent; presumably, one of the prerequisites should be that they care about their children’s education and become involved. Amen to that!
Henry stresses to his students the importance of reading. “How are you to learn anything if all of the images are provided for you?” We all need to read in order to stimulate our imagination. (It is not without irony that this message is being conveyed to us via a visual medium.) Henry also enjoys journaling as a form of mental therapy — he promotes the gospel of journaling to almost everyone he comes in contact with.
This is one of Adrien Brody’s best performances to date (which says a lot considering his already strong resume) and Sami Gayle is a young force to be reckoned with (I am looking forward to see what her future holds). I did feel like the acting talents of James Caan and Christina Hendricks (who plays Henry’s short-lived romantic interest, Ms. Madison) were criminally under-utilized and their characters were dreadfully under-written. While on the subject of casting, I found it to be quite interesting that director Tony Kaye cast his daughter — Betty Kaye — to play the role of Meredith, the artsy outsider who latches onto Henry for dear life; luckily Betty Kaye seems more than capable of handling the psychologically heavy role.
My only gripes are that I could have done without the faux confessional video footage with the shaggier incarnation of Adrien Brody (is this Henry in the future?) and the purposeless flashbacks of Henry’s past — both of which are used way too frequently in the narrative.